The Mullah of Dupont Circle

It isn’t obscene to describe Ground Zero.

Chatterbox was in New York last week for the first time since Sept. 11, but he didn’t visit Ground Zero, in part because he might have wanted to write about Ground Zero, and this would have put Chatterbox in serious peril of provoking the wrath of Leon Wieseltier. Since the World Trade Center towers fell, Wieseltier, the literary editor of the NewRepublic, has been on a mission to excoriate any writer who dares aestheticize the moral horrors of 9/11. Like a Taliban mullah inveighing against the corrupting effects of photography and kite-flying, Wieseltier cries foul at any attempt “to meet atrocity with sensibility.” Thus TheNew Yorker’s delightful Adam Gopnik (enemy polymath!) gets cuffed by Wieseltier in an Oct. 8 “Washington Diarist” column for comparing the odor hanging over lower Manhattan to smoked mozzarella. “I was not in Manhattan when it was attacked,” Mullah Wieseltier writes, “but I am certain that Gopnik’s observation is a lie.” Wieseltier then zeroes in on John Updike, who had the temerity to observe, from an apartment in Brooklyn, that “Smoke speckled with bits of paper curled into the cloudless sky, and strange inky rivulets ran down the giant structure’s vertically corrugated surface.” Such prose is “provoked by nothing so much as its own delicacy.” Needless to say, no such fancies corrupted our Dupont Circle cleric when he made his own pilgrimage to Ground Zero and wrote about it in a Nov. 26 “Diarist” column:

I was not prepared for what I saw. I do not know how to express the quality of my shock, except to say that it banished culture completely from my mind. I fell dumb and stood there as if I had never read a book. My observations erased my memories. I was without allusions and without metaphors. Can a mind be naked? Then I was naked, without coverings. All I could do was look, and pray to see.

What’s striking, of course, about Wieseltier’s claim to have banished sensibility from his mind is its sly boastfulness about achieving, in so doing, an even finer sensibility. This clears the way for some sensory evocation of his own:

The metal was the color of an infernal tarnish. I learned that yellow smoke is released when iron is cut. The hole in the sky was more striking than the hole in the ground. I watched the cranes scoop up soil from the pit, and then I grasped that it was not soil. There was no soil in this place. What they were moving was the substance that was formed out of the dissolution of everything and everybody that had been crushed and incinerated: a deathloam.

Chatterbox has no objection to any of this. But he’s a bit hazy about how we are to distinguish Wieseltier’s musings from what Wieseltier had previously scorned, coming from Gopnik and Updike, as the “cheap balm” of “fine writing.”